Selling History, Humor And Cartoons

How do you market a book that combines serious history, irreverent humor, and cartoons? That was the challenge facing author-cartoonist Stan Mack (creator of the legendary Village Voice comic strip “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies” and the Adweek strip “Out-takes”) and his publisher, NBM, for Stan’s new book, Taxes, The Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels, which hit bookstores this fall. I talked to my friend Stan about how he and NBM have been tackling the job. 

Q: What was the particular challenge with this book?

A: Taxes is a thoroughly researched, nonfiction, people’s-eye-view, history-in-comics of the American Revolution—in other words, it doesn’t fit in the graphic novel section of the bookstore, which features Spandex-clad superheroes and dark noir-ish fantasies. Nor does it belong in the humor section alongside collection of cat cartoons and golf jokes. So we had to figure out how to get the book’s message across in an era of snappy sound bytes and predigested media messages.

Q: And how do you do that? 

A: Well, first of all, the old model of book publicity—where the publisher sends the author on a multi-city author tour—is out the window. Unless you’re a rock star or a literary superstar, signings at bookstores are a huge expense and a waste of time. Instead, you have to target the message of your book to a distracted audience with a short attention span.

I worked closely with NBM to craft parallels between the events of American Revolution and the current political landscape. Which wasn’t hard to do. Think about it: What are the hot issues today? Jobs, the economy, taxes, ideology and the dangers of big government. Those are exactly the issues that led to the Revolution.

I also like to point out the difference between the contemporary view of the Founding Fathers, who are too often seen as a unified bloc of like-minded gentlemen, and the reality—which is that they squabbled and fought among themselves the entire time they were writing the Constitution. 

Q: It seems like that message really took off.

A: Yes, NBM sent review copies and releases to its well-established connections in the comics world and added publishing and education reviewers. And some great reviews have come in from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BoingBoing.net, and the New York Journal of Books, who have all said that readers should have the book at their fingertips this election season.

Also, The History Book Club has picked it up and Barnes & Noble is featuring it in their U.S. History section. I think this demonstrates the impact graphic works have had on the market—years ago, no one would have known what to do with this book. Now it goes without saying that a comics history of the Revolution is to be taken seriously as a work of nonfiction.

Q: I know you’ve also been using social media. 

A: Yes, that’s been a learning experience for me. I’ve done many books over the years, but this is the first time I’ve been focused on creating a strong social-media presence for a book.  

NBM has an author blog on its website, where I comment on the current political warfare and show how the events relate to the book. I also use Twitter and Facebook to post relevant messages—such as a suggestion that Mitt Romney, who favors having states run their own health-care systems, debate Founding Father James Madison, who believed states couldn’t be trusted as far as you could throw them. 

Q: What is the plan for the future? How do you keep a book fresh after its pub date?

A: Going forward, three months after publication, the marketing continues, but the targets are more specialized. As the politics of the day change, so the parallels with the book will change. The targeted sites will also grow. For instance, I just contacted my publisher NBM and said, “We should contact lawyers’ organizations. They love cartoons about the law and lawyers, and this book is definitely about both.” He’s getting used to hearing from me every other day.

Since history never changes—though the interpretations change all the time—the issues of the American Revolution will always be with us, therefore the marketing challenges will always be fresh. Lucky me!

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